According to a 2014 Departure of Agriculture study, 38 percent of school districts with debt denied hot meals to students who couldn’t pay and served an alternative meal, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This and similar policies have come to be known as “meal shaming,” and the practice has been widely criticized for humiliating students.
Several times, news coverage of specific incidents has inspired public intervention: When it recently came to light that a Rhode Island school district planned to serve cold sandwiches to indebted students, outside donors and companies such as Chobani raised funds to help write off student meal debt. This month, the mother of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2016, donated $8,000 to a high school in Minnesota to pay off meal debts for graduating seniors. The attention has also spurred some legislative action: States including New Mexico and California have banned “meal shaming,” and bills to do the same nationwide have been introduced in Congress.
But such measures don’t address the core injustice: Many students sit through the school day hungry. To guarantee access to nutritious meals, all school meals should be universally free.
For decades, the federal government’s breakfast and lunch programs have been feeding millions of students. But many students in debt don’t participate in free or reduced programs, which are based on family income. Betti Wiggins, nutrition services officer in Houston schools, calls them “the kids at the end of the cul-de-sac.” Many, she said, are in single-parent, food-insecure households with working mothers who earned just above the income eligibility mark and couldn’t afford to give their children a meal allowance or buy enough groceries to prepare a lunch. There’s also the barrier of filling out the complex meals application. Some immigrant families have expressed fear that participation in the program could mark them as a drain on the public and stymie their applications for permanent residency.
Since the Obama administration, we have had a program that models the effects of offering universal, free school meals: As a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) authorized school districts in some communities to offer free meals — including breakfast and, in some places, dinner — to all students, regardless of family income. Schools in communities where at least 40 percent of the students’ families participated in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) could be reimbursed by the government, up to the full cost of the program. In the 2016-17 school year, more than half of eligible districts participated. This includes schools from the Black Belt in the South to Appalachia to northeastern metropolises including Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.
Wilma McIntosh, director of food services in the Clarksdale Municipal School District in the high-poverty Mississippi Delta, observed a sea change after the program started. “There is no wondering if they have enough money to pay for meals,” she says. “There is no worry if they are current on their accounts. There is no worry other students will know that they are not able to pay.” Plus, the paperwork burden has been dramatically reduced — no need for parents to fill out a form for their child to be “certified.” Research has found that CEP has significantly increased student participation in free lunch programs: According to one study of public schools in Tennessee, “CEP may have also helped to reduce the stigma with participating in the free school meals program.” CEP has also been found to reduce suspensions.
The Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget slashes $1.7 billion from the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs over the next decade and closes a “loophole” that allowed districts to participate in CEP even if each individual school didn’t meet the 40 percent eligibility rate. Though the stated purpose is “targeting free meal benefits to children in need of assistance,” this action will throw millions of working-class children off the program.
This sharply reduces a program that should be expanded. In 2017, 6.5 million children lived in food-insecure households. A 2012 survey of more than 1,000 K-8 public school educators found that 62 percent of teachers reported that their students were frequently arriving at school hungry because of insufficient food at home. This has spilled over into the classroom, where students were reported to be tired and unable to concentrate, acting out and faring poorly academically.
The federal government spends nearly $18 billion a year on the school lunch and breakfast programs. Free and universal school meals would certainly cost many more billions, but it would have an immediate payoff for children’s education and health.
In U.S. primary and secondary schools, classes and access to the nurse and counselor are free. Meals, which are central to students’ educational experience, and their basic well-being, should not be treated any differently.